From Midgard to Valhalla
Scandinavian seafarers from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, known collectively as Vikings, played a pivotal role in shaping European culture through their raids and settlements.
While all Vikings came from Scandinavia, not every Scandinavian was a Viking. The title of Viking was reserved exclusively for those venturing across the seas to amass riches through raiding. Most Scandinavians engaged in other forms of livelihood, often trading, and were referred to as Northmen or Norsemen.
The etymology of “Viking” is a subject of academic debate, with many suggesting it stems from the Old Norse word for “pirate.” Various cultures recognized these seafarers by different names, but none used the term Viking. The Irish knew them as pagans or foreigners, the French as Northmen, the Slavs as the Rus, and the Germans as Ashmen, indicating their use of ash wood for shipbuilding.
From 793 CE and over the next three centuries, Vikings not only raided but also traded as far east as the Byzantine Empire where they famously guarded the Byzantine Emperor as the elite Varangian Guard. They deeply influenced the societies they encountered, founding cities like Dublin, colonizing Normandy in France, establishing Britain’s Danelaw, and forming numerous settlements throughout Scotland. Their expansion to Iceland and Greenland extended their culture across the North Atlantic and positioned them for further exploration, making them the first Europeans to set foot in North America.
Viking Expeditions (in blue), Principal Areas of Settlement (in green)
In Viking society, the social structure consisted of Jarls (nobility), Karls (common folk), and Thralls (slaves). Unlike Thralls, Karls could improve their social standing. Slavery was a significant part of Scandinavian life and a driving force behind their raids.
Viking women enjoyed more autonomy compared to many other cultures. They had the right to inherit property, engage in legal matters, and run businesses. Only women served as prophetesses for the deities Freyja or Odin, holding religious leadership roles and conveying divine messages to the people.
Marriages were a clan affair, with no choice in partners for either women or men. While women were tasked with child-rearing and household management, meal preparations were a shared responsibility.
Rook Piece from the Lewis Chessmen, crafted by Scandinavian
Beyond farming, which was the primary occupation for most Scandinavians, the society featured a range of professions including blacksmiths, armorers, brewers, merchants, poets, musicians, and jewelers. Trading amber—a fossilized pine tree resin—constituted a major income stream. Regularly found along the Scandinavian coasts, this amber was either crafted into jewelry or traded as a semi-processed commodity, particularly with the Roman and Byzantine empires.
Contrary to perceptions of Vikings as barbaric, they valued cleanliness and personal grooming. They kept their nails short, aligning with their beliefs about Ragnarok, where the ship Naglfar, made from the nails of the deceased, would launch upon the world’s end. Long nails at death meant contributing to Naglfar, hastening the end. Scandinavians saw Ragnarok not as a finality but as a prelude to a rebirth of the world, which would rise anew from the waters, starting the cycle again.
Before the world’s creation in Norse mythology, there was only ice and Ymir, a giant sustained by the great cow Audhumla. Audhumla nourished Ymir with her milk and fed herself by licking the ice. This licking released the god Buri, who fathered Borr. Borr took Bestla, Bolthorn the frost giant’s daughter, as his wife, and she bore Odin, Vili, and Vé. These gods joined forces, slew Ymir, and from his remains, they created the world.
This newly formed world took the shape of an immense tree, Yggdrasil, comprising nine distinct realms. Among these, Midgard served as the home for mortals, Asgard housed the gods, Alfheim belonged to elves, and Niflheim, beneath Midgard, became the destination for those who suffered ignoble deaths. Women of valor, particularly those who perished in childbirth, ascended the Hall of Frigg in Asgard, enjoying the afterlife with Odin’s spouse. Meanwhile, men who fell bravely in battle ascended to Odin’s Valhalla.
Mjölnir pendants: Norse symbols of faith comparable to the Christian cross
The Viking era is marked by the tales of legendary Norse figures such as Halfdan Ragnarsson, his sibling Ivar the Boneless, Guthrum, Harold Bluetooth, and his offspring Sven Forkbeard, alongside Cnut the Great and Harald Hardrada. Explorers like Eric the Red and Leif Erikson also left their mark, venturing into and establishing settlements in Greenland and North America.
Scholars commonly recognize 1066 CE as the end of the Viking Age, marked by Harald Hardrada’s death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, though raids persisted beyond this year. The era’s end came due to multiple factors, with the widespread Christianization of Scandinavia in the 10th and 11th centuries CE being a key element. As the Norse religion—the last major pagan faith—succumbed to Christianity, it took away the religious motivation for raiding, fundamentally altering the Norse way of life.
Words of wisdom
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
“There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.” —Hannah Arendt
“Three o’clock is always too late or too early for anything you want to do.” —Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind.” —Marcus Aurelius